This decade, Wilco’s frontman and songwriter, Jeff Tweedy, has released five albums with the band he started 25 years ago, taken time for solo projects and an album with his son, guest starred on Parks and Rec (in the fictional band Land Ho) and written a memoir released last November. And after all that, Tweedy and company released their 12th studio album, Ode to Joy, last month, his most essential work this decade.
Wilco needed re-calibration. The band’s last two LPs have delivered little in the way of fan favorite material with the sleepy Schmilco in 2016 and the surprise-release Star Wars in 2015.
Both those albums’ names and art indicate that they were more exercises in opposite ends of Wilco's late career spectrum than weighty additions to a classic discography. Star Wars is the noisier, flashy return from a four-year studio absence, while Schmilco feels more like a long breath taken before nestling into bed.
Tweedy’s strong songwriting still stands out on “North American Kids” off of Schmilco and Nels Kline’s slick guitar riffs remain on Star Wars tracks like “Random Name Generator” or “King of You.” But ultimately, those records didn’t carry the same weight or wield Wilco’s veteran versatility that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or Ghost Is Born did last decade.
Ode to Joy earns back some of that heft.
Its slow-burning centerpiece “Quiet Amplifier” has Tweedy staring a full life in the face and hoping his efforts were worthwhile. It churns and builds in ways that harken back to the band’s more experimental days, while maintaining a linear projection. “If only your world was mine / Shattered the stars would shine / Shy little flower on the vine.”
“Everyone Hides” is a plucky, upbeat single that effectively grapples with the performed and the inner self: “And you know where the bodies are buried / But you can't remember where you buried the mines.” It features more juice and guile than Wilco’s demonstrated in recent years when the tank looked nearly empty.
Maybe the memoir helped. Tweedy's memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), allowed him to face his problems with drug addiction, his alcoholic father and his band’s own inner turmoil in ways more direct than his knotty songwriting. His father drank a 12-pack of cheap beer every single day, he once stole opiates from his mother-in-law while she was sick and he once traveled hours to a Ramones show where he wasn’t even old enough to get let inside.
Wading into a solo career probably helped, too. Tweedy released two albums' worth of new material, plus he stripped down some of his old hits to play live by himself. This type of independent meditation can act as an adult baptism for a band that’s been together for so long.
Wilco feels born again, and the group's showing it in how much fun some of the new songs are, even while Tweedy struggles with late-middle age, celebrity fatherhood and the cost of so much time away from his family.
The lead single, “Love Is Everywhere (Beware),” contains all of this. Playful guitar noodling carries Tweedy from tangled winds to fiery lakes where he contemplates his own loneliness and failure to always externalize his love for others. It’s the type of song that is both impossible for a college student to literally relate to, but feels like something I’m about to face.
That “beware” only comes in the song’s conclusion, when he admits to himself, and the listener, that this is going to be harder than you think. Caring again, creating something that you really think has some meaning and trusting the other side to feel the same way is some of the toughest stuff that Tweedy writes about. And that type of care, tenderness, effort and clarity of purpose is exactly what Wilco finds on Ode to Joy.
"Music Mondays" is a weekly column run in conjunction with the University of Richmond radio, WDCE.
Contact contributor Conner Evans at firstname.lastname@example.org. Evans is the music director for WDCE.